Bill Kahn to be honored for civil rights work


William Kahn, longtime former executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis and previously of the Jewish Community Center, will be honored with the Heschel-King Award along with Dr. Henry Givens of Harris-Stowe College for their many years of work on behalf of civil and human rights, by Jews United for Justice of St. Louis. The event will take place at 3 p.m., Sunday, Jan. 27, at the old Young Men’s Hebrew Association (YMHA, later the JCC), 724 Union Avenue just east of Delmar Boulevard.

Kahn, a native of Pittsburgh, had a four-decade career in Jewish communal service in St. Louis, along with major additional posts in his native city and New York. Kahn attended the University of Pittsburgh, and earned a bachelor of arts degree and a master’s degree in social work. After initially considering a career as an athlete, Kahn decided on Jewish communal service and social work, taking a job with the old Council House staff “because it was the best paying job offered me — $3,600 a year!” Kahn said in an interview with Lois Caplan. At Council House, Bill met his late first wife, the former Shirlee Fink. The Kahns moved to Denver in 1955, where he served as assistant executive director and camp director of that city’s Jewish Community Center. He returned to St. Louis to become executive director of the newly merged Jewish Community Center (then called the JCCA).

In 1977, Kahn moved to his native Pittsburgh, where he became director of that city’s Jewish Federation. His success in that post led to an offer by the Federation of Jewish Philanthopies of New York City to become its executive vice president, in 1981. In that city, he took on the task of bringing about the merger of the Federation with the United Jewish Appeal of New York. In spite of extremely vocal resistance and opposition and the need to get approval from 130 boards and agencies, Kahn accomplished the merger.

In 1986, then Jewish Federation President Israel Goldberg approached Kahn about the position of executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis, which he accpted. Kahn served with Goldberg and with his successor as JFed president, Tom Green, who said, “Bill did a wonderful job for us. We had a tremendous increase in fund raising and he created a closer relationship between the agencies and the Federation. He did what we asked him to do — to build a cohesive community.” Green’s successor, Alyn Essman, told Lois Caplan what it was like working with Kahn. “It’s kind of like working with a human dynamo. A lot of action goes on and there’s a continuous flow of ideas.”

Kahn and his wife Margo reside near West Palm Beach, Fla.

While Kahn’s accomplishments in both the Jewish Community Center and JFed movements continue to inspire his many former colleagues, he is personally most proud of his activism on behalf of human and civil rights throughout his career. His late father, Joseph (Ziggy) Kahn was the athletic director of the Pittsburgh Jewish Settelment House. In 1933, the senior Kahn organized the Anti-German Olympic League as a protest to Adolf Hitler’s anti-Semitism, in anticipation of Nazi Berlin’s 1936 hosting of the Olympic Games. “My Dad took a lot of heat for taking such a stand so early, but it certainly was an inspiration to me.”

Kahn became an ardent supporter of the civil rights movement led by the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King with the strong support of the late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, the namesakes of the award he is to receive on Sunday. Kahn marched with Dr. King from Selma to Montgomery, hosted Dr. King as a speaker at the JCC’s Liberal Forum, and led summer programs in support of King’s educational efforts in the South. When he was executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis, he initiated an annual observance on Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday on the Millstone Campus.

In addition, along with Tom Green and Holocaust survivor Leo Wolff, Kahn was the driving force behind the establishment of the St. Louis Holocaust Museum and Learning Center in Honor of Gloria M. Goldstein, which honored Kahn by naming a path in its garden in his honor last year.

“I am deeply moved to be receiving this honor along with Dr. Givens,” Kahn told the St. Louis Jewish Light. “Especially so close to the birthday of Dr. King, and taking place at the Old Y Building, I cannot imagine a more meaningful award and event.”

For more information, call 314-361-3919, x111.

What: Heschel/King Celebration

Where: 724 Union Avenue

When: Jan. 27 at 3 p.m.

Who: Jews United for Justice

Published Jan. 23, 2008